PORT OF SARTENEJA
The Mayan port of
Sarteneja was a significant Maya city in
the archeological region of Corozal Bay, Belize. During its peak Sarteneja would have been widely known within Maya
civilisation as a part of the trade corridor between the Northern Highlands and the eastern
The name Sarteneja is derived from the Yucatan Maya “Tzaten‐a‐Ha”, which is thought to
translate as “water in the rock”, referring to
the numerous shallow wells dug through the limestone.
The Mayan port of
Sarteneja may include more than 500 structures. The site core being located 0.5 to 1.0km inland
from the current shoreline. The current shoreline at Sarteneja has eroded inland as
shown by Mayan burials being exposed in eroding
Ceramics from the region suggest that the
whole area of now present day Sarteneja was a small coastal
settlement from the Late Preclassic (100
AD). By 100 AD
the population of the Sartenejan region, and interaction with surrounding
Mayan regions began to grow significantly. Driven by greater population and
increased trade over a wider area, Sarteneja reached its peak during the period
from the end of the Late Preclassic (AD 250)
to the Terminal Classic (800
to 1000 AD (Raymond Sidry, 1974, see Mayan
archeological periods), and continued into the Post-Classic probably
up to the time of the Spanish invasion see Sartenejan
The Maya were
possibly first attracted to the site for small scale fisheries and agricultural
production and as a stopover in the maritime trade
The Sartenejan region is rich with Mayan sites. In the late 1980’s an
archaeological study carried out in Sarteneja demonstrated that the area was once a prosperous
seaport, central to trade between the interior Guatemala, the Belizean and Guatemalan coastlines,
the Yucatan Peninsula.
Sarteneja appears to be a vital node on
a curcumpeninsula maritime exchange network that involved the shipment of raw materials, finished
objects, and ideologies from areas as distant as Mexico, and Naco, Honduras (Boxt and
During the Postclassic Sarteneja traded with the great Mayan cities along the
eastern Yucatan Peninsula, Talum and Mayapan, and inland to central
The discovery of imported artifacts such as obsidian prismatic blades,
hammer stones, and pottery with stylistic affinities with those from Mayapan and Tulum on
the northern Yucatan Peninsula clearly demonstrates that the Sartenejan Maya interacted
directly or indirectly with distant cultures of
These objects show that Sarteneja was a centre
for long distance and regional trading, being an important stop over point for merchants and
travelers. Sarteneja was a cross road for people traveling between Mexico, the Belizean coral reef,
and the Corozal region.
Sarteneja may have serviced four regional
ecosystems, Chetumal Bay, the Caribbean sea and barrier reef, Shipstern Lagoon, and the cities
terrestrial environments. Large trading vessels would have sailed the waters of Corozal
A narrow channel that separates Ambergris Caye from
Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, as the Belizean/Mexico border was cut by the Maya 1500 years ago.
Adjacent are the ruins of Chac Balam an important Maya trading center that would have had
close affinities with Sarteneja.
Sarteneja would have also been closely involved in
terrestrial and riverine trade. Sarteneja was situated near the presumed termination of the New
River and Rio Hondo trade routes, whose points of origin may have been El Petan, the Guatemalan
highlands, or as far away as the Central Mexican Plateau.
Together the archeological and geographic evidence
suggests that Sarteneja could have monitored or controlled procurement and distribution of local
and regional resources during the Terminal Classic and Postclassic periods. Sarteneja appears to be
a regular port and rest area for the Postclassic trading expeditions that ventured from Mexico's
Gulf Coast southward to Honduras (Boxt and Christensen, 1985).
There is evidence of Maya settlement throughout
Sarteneja Village but most has been reduced to small mounds or individual
rocks. Within miles of Sarteneja there is a network
of roads, small settlements, and ceremonial sites. Most of these sites are almost unexplored and
visitors are welcome to engage in exploratory tours. see Sarteneja
Sarteneja and the Mayan
cities surrounding Sarteneja were abandoned shortly after the Spanish invasion
in 1650. The Maya had to be fought region by
region as the Maya had no central city such as the Aztecs. However,
Lamanai, about 120
km from Sarteneja was occupied from 400BC to 1650AD and is
one of the longest lasting and most enduring Maya cities. The Maya now comprise a population
of 6 to 8 million.
Other nearby Maya cities on the coast were Ceros (25
km - NW), Corozal (45km - NNW), Bacalar Chico (70 km - E), and Chetumal (90 km - N).
From the headwaters of the New River toward
Corozal Bay there are the Maya centers of Lamanai (120 km ESE), Orange Walk (70 km, WSW), and Chunox (30
km, W) as the river winds coast ward.
Lamanai was one of the
last surviving Maya cities at the time of European invasion. Lamanai is located on a lake in the
New River, Belize, and was supported by a very extensive wetland on the opposite side of the lake.
This wetland was used for irrigation supported horticulture and could provide food for a large
population and perhaps some security against drought.
Lamanai was also on a
major riverine trade route, the New River, which would have helped stabilise its economy even in
difficult times. Produce would have been traded between Lamanai and Sarteneja, as the New River
enters Corozal Bay close to Sarteneja. see Lamanai
Although all the Maya cities surrounding
Sarteneja have a long history of exploration, the Maya history of Sarteneja remains
relatively unexplored and mysterious. There are even Maya sites hidden close by in the jungle
that are rarely visited even by the local people.
For the adventurous, special hiking tours to explore
Maya heritage can be arranged. There are also several
easily accessible and fascinating Maya sites within kilometers of the outskirts of Sarteneja
including a plaza, mounds, remains of Maya villages, and a large cenote for swimming.
see list of Sartenejan Tourism >
Mathew A. Boxt and Wes Christensen. 1985. A Maya bone carving from Sarteneja,
Belize. Journal of New World Archeology. 5 (4): 1-12.